We have spent the last 10 days in Samoa, a country made up of several tiny islands in the South Pacific. Whilst Samoa may seem small with a population of around 180’000 people its people are larger than life – friendly, laid-back, and very proud of their culture. Despite once being a German and subsequently New Zealand colony the islands have maintained a traditional way of life, into which we have been able to enjoy a small insight.
We arrived just after midnight (most flights come and go from Samoa at ungodly times) and, as we had been in Fiji, we were greeted by a traditional Samoan band as we passed through customs – Heathrow has a lot to learn! We had booked into a homestay (Taumesinas Hideaway) in Apia, Samoa’s capital and only town, and were kindly picked from the airport by our gracious hosts Sara and Masa. It was a 40 minute drive from the airport to the town, which took us nearly the length of Samoa’s main island, Upolu. By the time we reached our accommodation, it was the early hours of the morning and after chasing some creepy crawlies (Lisa hates cockroaches!) out of our westernised ‘Fale’ (the typical Samoan home) we were happy to go to bed.
We spent our first day in Samoa having a wander through Apia, a bustling town and probably the only place in Samoa to resemble anything like the 21st century life that we live in the west. Whilst there are many traditional Samoan Fales there are several colonial style buildings, such as the Supreme Court, as well as some modern government buildings. We walked along the harbour, meandered through the flea market, and dodged the fleet of colourful buses (old trucks with a bus body on the back) pulling in and out of the nearby bus station. North of the harbour there is the Fale Fono (parliament house) and a memorial to mark the independence of Samoa from NZ in 1962 (exactly 50 years ago as the Samoans have been reminding us!). Missionaries did a thorough job in the pacific and Christianity underpins the Samoan society as demonstrated by the slogan on the independence memorial – ‘Samoa is founded on God’.
We soon learnt that we needed to adjust to a new set of rules regarding punctuality in Samoa – if something is worth doing it can be done later, or even tomorrow – time almost seems to stand still. This is most evident at the bus station where throngs of people sit and wait (quite happily) for buses that don’t run to a schedule and come and go as they please. We took a bus to the former residence of the Robert Lewis Stevenson the famous Scottish author (he wrote Treasure Island) and even though it’s not far from the town it took us most of the day to get there and back. The buses are an interesting experience with wooden seats (arse numbing with lots of hard jolts) and pumping pop music played crazily loud. At first we didn’t realise but there is a strict seating hierarchy on the bus which the Samoans subconsciously arrange; unmarried women sit together, foreigners and old people must have a seat, and when there are no free seats people sit on other people to maintain the correct order – quite amusing when you start to notice!
Anyway we made it to the mansion built by Stevenson in 1890, set in some grand gardens on a sight in the hills above Apia it is a lovely place. Stevenson came to Samoa in 1889 and chose to reside in Apia as the climate helped against his lifelong illness of Tuberculosis, which it did but sadly he died of a stroke in 1894. He was an activist for Samoan rights against the colonial powers and became very popular with the Samoan people who called him Tusitala (Teller of Tales). The original house was destroyed by a cyclone in 1992 but has been restored, Stevenson’s grave is set at the top of a steep hill overlooking Apia.
The mansion is called ‘Villa Vailima’ and the only Samoan brewery has the same name, and produces international award winning beer – I’m not sure if you can buy it in Europe but if so it is well worth a try!
Having learnt about the unreliable buses and after talking with some fellow travellers we realised that the most convenient way to see the islands was to rent a car. Therefore with the help of the friendly staff at the Samoan Tourist Office (located in a Fale at Apia harbour) we sought out a good deal and found ourselves driving a battered Daihatsu Terious (a small 4WD) to the eastern end of Upolu. Driving is pretty easy as there is one main sealed road that runs around the island and the speed limits are pretty slow, the only danger is the stray dogs, chickens, pigs, and children that like to hang out on the road.
That said the roads are nice to drive and passing through the many colourful villages along the way with the friendly villagers waving at us is a very pleasant experience. The village residents reside in simple fales but at the centre piece of each village is a church, the bigger the better as the villages compete to have the most grand.
The Samoans made life easy for the missionaries by openly accepting Christianity, albeit in a Samonised form, which was largely due to a prophesy by their former gods that a new religion would take root in the islands – the fantastic possessions of the white man only helped to demonstrate the power of their gods.
We stayed for three nights at the Taufua beach fales on the fabulous beach at Lalomanu. Because of the beach it is probably the touristiest part of Samoa, although it’s nothing compared to the tourist trail of Fiji. It was a fantastic experience to sleep right on the beach in our open fale, a simple wooden platform covered with a coconut leaf thatched roof surrounded by wooden blinds or a tarpaulin for a bit of protection from the rain if necessary. We slept on a mattress on the wooden floor under a mosquito net, we were literally a few metres from the sea.
We slept really well and being at the eastern end of the island and due to Samoa recently changing to the New Zealand side of the date line we were able to see the first sunrise of the new day before the rest of the world – Samoa is 14 hours ahead of the UK.
We also did some snorkelling although due to a Tsunami on Samoas south coast in 2009 sadly much of the coral reef that lies just offshore has been destroyed, but nevertheless we saw lots of colourful fish just off the beach. Further along the coast is the To Sua Ocean Trench, which is a large sunken (20m deep) waterhole surrounded by lush vegetation. The tranquil pool is fed by waves pushing through an underwater passage through the lava rock cliffs nearby. The crystal clear water is accessed by descending a rickety ladder.
It was a peaceful place to swim and relax and with no there we could enjoy it all to ourselves, even the droplets of a rain shower felt good 🙂
On Saturday at the beach fales there was a wedding (other tourists) on the beach so the place was decorated with flowers, and we all enjoyed watching the ceremony. In the evening our hosts put on a fiafia – a traditional Samoan evening of music and dancing, an energetic performance with lots of fast movements and some dances similar to those performed by the Maoris in New Zealand, including a Haka variant.
After the fiafia there was something of a ‘nightclub’ at the neighbouring fales where we got to watch the Samoans getting drunk and loving the loud cheesy music, very amusing. I guess they go a bit crazy because with Sunday being the Sabbath day it is a very quiet and relaxed day. People go to church in the morning and then eat a traditional feast cooked in an Umu (an underground oven) the afternoon is spent snoozing in a beach fale. Therefore it was a very quiet day for us, not helped by heavy rain (it is the end of the wet season here) most of the day, there was little to do but lie in our fale with a book. Our hosts did cook us a traditional feast though, which include baked fish, prawns, octopus, and a whole roasted pig!
It rained again most of the next day so we decided to drive back across the island to visit the Bahá’i House of Worship that stands at the highest point of the island. There are only eight of these nine sided temples in the world and we have visited the Sydney and Delhi temples and found them interesting so were keen to visit the temple in Samoa. The basis of the faith is the unity of all religions and people from all backgrounds. Inside the temple, even shrouded in fog with the rain hammering down, it felt like a spiritual place. Sadly the photos don’t show reflect how peaceful it was.
We had planned to stay in a beach fale on the south coast somewhere but the rain didn’t stop so we opt instead for a comfortable room at the Outrigger Hotel in Apia. The benefit of being in Apia was that we could choose what we wanted to eat rather than whatever our hosts provided to us at the fales, so we went for a really nice curry! It rained again most of the next day, which with little to do in sleepy Samoa meant another quiet day for us. We hung out in a cafe in Apia for a while and then drove down to the Western end of Upolu where we stayed the night so that we could take the ferry the next day to Samoa’s larger island of Savai’i early the following morning.
The ferry seems to be one of the few things in Samoa that is punctual, although it left a bit early! A Chinese built car ferry that is quite rocky even on the relatively calm 15km Apolima Strait between the islands. Thankfully the rain held off for us and after disembarking the ferry we were able to drive to the north east of the island. Savai’i might be larger than Upolu but it’s a lot quieter, there’s no town here only villages dotted along the coastline. The island is formed by volcanic eruptions and there are large lava fields around the island. The volcano Mt Matavanu erupted between 1905 and 1911 destroying many villages, hence many people relocated to Uplou. The lava fields give an otherworld appearance, and we visited the remnants of an old church where the lava had flown right through it.
The lava in places is up to 150m thick, but near the church is the ‘Virgins Grave’, which unfathomably the lava flowed around – supposedly because she was so pure. It had to be seen to be believed, this photo doesn’t really do it justice.
We also visited a supposedly endless lava tunnel called ‘Dwarfs Cave’, a guy from the local village guided us into the tunnel but we didn’t have a very good torch so didn’t go in far as it was slippy and wet and almost pitch black!
Whilst on Suvai’i we stayed at the Lauiula beach fales at the village of Lano, traditional fales set on a nice beach it had a really nice feel to it. Our host Richard and his family were really welcoming and we enjoyed talking with them to understand a little more about Samoan culture. The food was good too, featuring some veggies for a change as they are quite rare in Samoan cooking – as are skinny Samoans!
Savaií in general felt more traditional and it was nice to stop and talk with the locals who were only too happy to have a chat (especially about Rugby!), most people here can speak really good English – even in tiny villages in the middle of nowhere. We were told there were some ancient pyramidal mounds (supposedly Polynesia’s largest ancient structure) dating back thousands of years near the south coast of the island. We followed a pretty overgrown and not very well signposted trail through the jungle, cutting our legs on the prickly vines along the way, and after a couple of hours we gave up as the path disappeared in the dense jungle – a lot of sweating for nothing!
However, the fresh water pools at the Afu-a-au Waterfalls near the start of the trail were a welcome place to cool off!
We would have liked to stay in Savai’i for longer but sadly we had to return to Upolu for our last night to be near the airport for our flight back to Fiji. We took the ferry back and dropped the car back in Apia and stayed at the Outrigger again – this time in a Fale in their garden (cheaper!) as the sun was shining. We also visited the Museum of Samoa where we learnt more about the history and culture of Samoa, most interesting were the photos from the late 1800’s when Germany colonised the islands.
Despite time almost seeming to stop at times during our stay in Samoa we now feel like the time has flown by and are sad to leave. It has been a real pleasure to get in touch with Samoan people, who are so friendly and hospitable. Samoa is not really a sightseeing place but there are some lovely beaches and the lava fields of Savai’i are definitely worth seeing. It’s quite a challenging place to travel in that there is little tourist infrastructure, nothing like the mass tourism of neighbouring Fiji, but there’s nothing wrong with a challenge and we have found it to be a very rewarding place to visit.
So the journey continues, and although our onward flights have been delayed by the cyclone in Fiji, we have made alternative arrangements and fly to Singapore later – via Auckland and Sydney! From there our South-East Asia adventure begins!
There are a load of photos from our time in Samoa here.